Wireless LANs head into the mainstream

Is this the beginning of a populist era for the wireless LAN? If wireless inbuilding equipment can leapfrog to Ethernet speeds and beyond, at prices users can afford, wireless LANs may well be headed toward enterprise-wide acceptance early in the next century.

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Prices drop. Speeds go up. Is wireless ready for the big enterprise bow?

Daniel Sweeney

Is this the beginning of a populist era for the wireless LAN? If wireless inbuilding equipment can leapfrog to Ethernet speeds and beyond, at prices users can afford, wireless LANs may well be headed toward enterprise-wide acceptance early in the next century.

Once considered a niche product designed for a handful of verticals, wireless LANs are evolving rapidly. Dramatic increases in network throughputs along with dropping prices for hardware could make wireless a horizontal business choice.

Analyst Craig Mathias of the Farpoint Group (Ashland, MA) predicts that "MIS officers around the country will soon begin to ask, `Why am I still using wire?` " When installation costs and recurring carrier charges are factored into the total cost of a LAN, wireless can, in some instances, deliver more functions at a better price than wireline.

"I firmly believe that within two years, wireless LAN equipment will be commonplace in the general office environment," predicts Colleen Fitzpatrick, senior product marketing manager at Symbol Technologies (Holtsville, NY). "But three things will have to happen first: Equipment will get faster, the installation hassles [must] be minimized so MIS people don`t need to concern themselves with radio-frequency issues, and product distribution must open up. Fortunately, all of this is starting to happen now."

New features for wireless LANs are promoting a spread outside the verticals. "Hoteling or hot desking is what is really driv-ing the wireless LAN," explains Vanessa Swancott, director, U.S. marketing at BreezeCom (Carlsbad, CA). Companies with a lot of staff occupying temporary desks need wireless connections, she argues. Further, "we`re seeing increased applications in corporate conference rooms," affirms Jan Haagh, Lucent Technologies` product manager for the WaveLAN product division. "[Conferencing is] where managers set up their portables to access data from the network."

Others emphasize the commercial importance of the recent provision of voice capabilities in a number of commercial LANs. "In the future there will be only one network," observes Hatim Zaghloul, president and chief executive of Wi-LAN (Calgary, AB, Canada), a developer of high-speed wireless LANs, modems, and bridges. "Wireless data networks are going to have to support voice just like their wireline counterparts. This, along with greatly increased speed, will make them much more attractive."

A related development is paging over private wireless networks, as yet supported only by Symbol among LAN manufacturers and Spectralink (Boulder, CO) in the wireless private branch exchange (PBX) category. Given the importance of both manufacturers, expect the paging option to become more prevalent in the future, and don`t rule out video in the midterm. Most current wireless LANs lack the quality of service provisions to support high-quality video, but NEC is developing a video-quality wireless LAN. If streaming video becomes more the norm in wireline networks, as many predict, their wireless counterparts will surely follow suit.

Major trends--increased speed

The biggest news in wireless is a major increase in throughput speed (not yet apparent in most product offerings). Currently, the IEEE is amending the 802.11 wireless LAN standard for inbuilding data systems to a specification of 11 megabits per second maximally within the 2.4-gigahertz unlicensed data band. This is more than five times the typical rate of current systems.

The standards committee has already chosen to recommend the orthogonal code-division multiple access modulation system developed by Lucent Technologies, and while the new standard awaits final approval, Harris Semiconductor (Melbourne, FL) is already manufacturing the Prism chipset for products that will operate at the higher speeds. Extension of the 802.11 standard into the 5.2-GHz band, which will demonstrably permit throughputs in the tens of gigabits per second, is currently under discussion.

Meanwhile, three manufacturers--Clarion, Aironet, and RadioLAN--have elected not to wait for industry consensus, and each has introduced multinode wireless LAN components with nominal throughputs in the 10- to 11-Mbit/sec range. All three systems use proprietary modulation schemes and are incompatible with those of other manufacturers, though Aironet claims that its system will conform to the new 802.11 by the time this piece sees print. The Clarion and Aironet offerings both operate in the 2.4-GHz band while RadioLAN equipment transmits at 5.2 GHz, the first multinode system to do so.

The migration to 10 Mbits/sec will bring wireless LANs to rough parity with Ethernet today. True, Fast Ethernet (100 Mbits/sec) and Gigabit Ethernet rates remain well out of reach, but neither of these has seen general adoption as yet, particularly Gigabit Ethernet. Presumably, the 10-Mbit/sec threshold will let wireless LANs enter a new mainstream of corporate networking; the focus for MIS directors will shift from performance issues (the credibility factor) to matters of price and ease of integrating wireless components with existing networks.

Moreover, the 10-Mbit/sec rate will likely become an interim wireless standard for the industry. The high-speed, 802.11-compliant equipment will be superseded within perhaps a year of its arrival by LANs operating in the 30-megabit range. Proxim already claims to be prototyping equipment operating at speeds much higher than 11 Mbits/sec and BreezeCom also alluded to much faster systems in the offing. How much faster? Lucent is claiming astounding performance for prototype equipment in the 5.2-GHz band. "We`ve already achieved 54 Mbits/sec with an orthogonal frequency-division technique," says Lucent`s Haagh. "You don`t need to spread the carrier to achieve this performance."

The spectrum to which Haagh alludes actually consists of three separate bands--one at 5.1 to 5.25 GHz, another at 5.25 to 5.35 GHz, and a third at 5.725 to 5.825 GHz. The two lower-frequency bands promise to be the main focus of manufacturer product research because they are adjacent, offering abundant bandwidth. Further, they are subject to power restrictions that permit the operation of private, multicellular on-premises networks.

Perhaps the most extravagant speed claims lie with Wi-LAN. "We`re doing 30 megabits in prototypes at 2.4 GHz," says Zaghloul. "And that`s with very low error rates and a high degree of robustness." Zaghloul`s system uses his patented OFDM (orthogonal frequency-division modulation) air interface, a modulation scheme by which the data stream is simultaneously carried by multiple narrowband carriers within the allocated spectrum. Zaghloul predicts that the system will win industry certification in the future and dominate both local-area and wide-area wireless networks. In the meantime, some variants of the scheme are finding employment in DSL and cable-TV data networks.

Major trends--price reduction

Prior to 1998, prices for wireless LAN equipment using unlicensed spectrum remained high, typically more than $500 per network interface card (NIC) and more than double that for an access point/base station. Recently those prices have dropped dramatically.

"We`re seeing street prices as low as $160 per card, which will fall to $75 or $80 within a year," relates Mathias of the Farpoint Group. "We`re approaching the time when the cost of the equipment will cease to be an inhibitor and MIS officers can focus simply on the benefits. When that happens wireless will become ubiquitous."

Such pricing may reflect deep discounting and aggressive promotion of older equipment models because no manufacturer of enterprise-class equipment is quoting prices that low for the newer systems. On the other hand, no manufacturer contacted would deny that prices are plunging and are likely to fall still further within the next 12 months.

A number of factors appear to be driving the drop in prices. The first is the proliferation of standards-based equipment using common chipsets. Obviously, standardized products promote competition through competitive bidding by manufacturers seeking to sell individual components in the network.

The second factor is the increasing presence of major manufacturers in an industry that has up until now been largely the province of independents. For example, industry giant Lucent, long a player in the wireless LAN market, is now joined by Raytheon, Bay Networks/Nortel, NEC, and Ericsson, companies with the resources to promote the category through aggressive pricing and volume production and with the distribution networks to pursue a horizontal market.

"Up until now the traditional manufacturers have not had a presence in the catalog houses or mass distribution retail venues," says Symbol`s Fitzpatrick. "We`ve been selling to verticals through value-added resellers [VARs], and this has had the effect of maintaining an artificially high pricing structure. VARs will continue to have a place in the verticals because they really do add value, but they`ll be joined by other distribution outlets."

A third factor whose importance is still hard to gauge is the recent emergence of a small office/home office (SOHO) market for wireless LAN equipment. Industry stalwart Proxim (Mountain View, CA) is currently pursuing SOHO aggressively by redirecting its older 1.5-Mbit/sec Symphony line into mass-distribution channels. "The speed of the equipment is more than adequate for small-office users and exceeds what they`re experiencing in their WAN [wide area network] connections over ISDN [Integrated Services Digital Network] or cable modem," says a Proxim spokesperson. "The price of the hardware is frequently less than the installation cost of running cable from room to room."

Unfortunately, the downward trend in pricing will not be felt for some time in the Ethernet and higher-speeds marketplace. MIS managers may reasonably expect to pay a premium for 10 Mbits/sec plus 802.11 interoperability and flexibility. As production ramps up, though, the price picture will improve, but high-speed wireless connections could suffer from an inherent cost disadvantage. "As with any wireless LAN, speed is a function of distance, and typically 11-Mbit/sec products are very short range," says Symbol`s Fitzpatrick.

Major trends--new functionality

Overwhelmingly, wireless LANs of recent past have been principally used to support batch processing and transaction-based operations in warehouses and retail sales floors, hospitals, and financial trading centers. What has not developed heretofore is a true horizontal market, despite the fact that wireless systems today are approaching plug and play.

Manufacturers are seeking to stimulate the development of a broad horizontal market by endowing wireless LANs with new functionality and capabilities. Among the innovations are wireless voice over Internet Protocol (IP), wireless videoconferencing and LAN paging, wireless connections to PDAs, and handheld computers and short-range wireless docking to peripherals.

IP voice over wireless LANs is probably causing the biggest stir. Symbol has been shipping its NetVision LAN phone for some time now, and competing products have been announced by BreezeCom, which is already in the wireline IP voice business, and from Telxon. Such systems combine the benefits of wireless inbuilding phones and wireless LANs in one network, which simplifies network management and allows voice and data to share the same base stations. "If you`ve already got a wireless LAN in place, you can add wireless voice for $699 per handset," says Fitzpatrick. "That`s considerably less than the per-user cost of a wireless PBX, which averages about $1000."

Symbol is also offering a wireless paging option via special version of the Palm Pilot equipped with a wireless lan nic. As the handheld computer category continues to grow in popularity, we may expect similar products to follow from other manufacturers.

With the availability of greater bandwidth and higher throughput rates, multimedia applications seem inevitable, and at least one manufacturer, RadioLAN, already supports videoconferencing over its 5-GHz equipment. While videoconferencing is still an application of limited appeal, a full-motion video capability has special relevance in the rapidly emerging wireless educational market. Furthermore, in the established verticals of healthcare and manufacturing, users are already employing the networks to transmit data-intensive graphics such as cad/cam drawings and X-rays.

Undoubtedly, the emerging 5-GHz networks will host more and richer multimedia applications than are currently possible in the bandwidth-limited 2.4-GHz band, and the use of ATM core transports in at least some of these networks will foster the growth of wireless multimedia. In the near term though, multimedia is apt to consist primarily of voice and text data, with video remaining fairly exotic.

Finally, wireless will get a functional boost from Bluetooth, the new short-range wireless personal area network (PAN) standard, which promises to bring a rudimentary form of wireless networking to offices throughout the corporate sector. Bluetooth interfaces are intended for wireless docking of computer peripherals, something that can just as easily be done with current NICs. The difference is that Bluetooth chips will have a raw cost of a few dollars as opposed to hundreds for a present-generation NIC, and therefore can be incorporated into the peripheral itself. Currently the standard is supported by Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia, and Toshiba. Expect to see Bluetooth equipment some time in 1999.

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High-speed wireless LAN solutions let users spend more time concentrating on the task at hand rather than trying to find an available computer or a wire connection for a portable.

Daniel Sweeney is a contributing editor for Wireless Integration. This article is excerpted from an article that originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 1999 issue of Wireless Integration, another PennWell publication.

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